Transferwell

I followed a link from Kottke.org to an Atlantic Monthly article by Derek Thompson about how to choose a charity to support based on effectiveness of action rather than effectiveness of pitch or pride of place. The counter-example Thompson gives is John Paulson’s $300 million donation to Harvard. Nice, but as others have pointed out, does Harvard really need another $300 million to add to its what? $30 billion endowment? Giving is nice–even giving to Harvard–and giving to an organization with visibility reflects much glory back to the giver, and surely there’s a bit of the wealthy helping the wealthy going on not just at Harvard.

But if one wants to make a gift effective, for a purpose, you know, where it may really matter, then one has to do extra work. As Andrew Carnegie put it in The Gospel of Wealth, folks have to manage their wealth (and by “wealth” Carnegie meant more than just the money saved up to cover for retirement and contingencies, money he called “competence”–“wealth” is the surplus beyond what’s necessary to cover the normal citizen’s future needs). That is, a person with wealth should consider all surplus wealth as “trust funds . . . to administer in the manner which, in his judgement, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community . . . .” In Carnegie’s view, the best charity involves helping those ready to help themselves–“to give those who desire to use the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.” The key point: “Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance.”

Thompson discovers through GiveWell, an organization that evaluates charities, that malaria is one of the areas where giving can make a tremendous difference. GiveWell reviews charity based on three criteria:

  • What is the problem? How many people does it affect, and how deeply does it affect them?
  • What are the possible interventions? Are there opportunities to make tangible progress?
  • Who else is working on it? All else equal, we expect to have more impact where there is less existing philanthropy.

GiveWell considers charities that are working in areas that may have greater impact looks at how well they spend their money. GiveWell looks at outputs and expects transparency. They find that in their evaluation of charities aiming to help the world’s poor, health-related efforts have the greatest impact.

Now, what does all this have to do with tech transfer, innovation, and all that? Consider a couple of points. First, look at the focus of most university technology transfer offices–it’s on getting that big-hit patent license while making sure that everyone else’s inventive thought is properly “processed” just in case it could be the “one.” The focus in not on the “health” of the inventors or the “health” of the research community, but rather on an income stream that will brighten administrators’ futures. What would a patent policy look like that aimed for a “healthy” creative community rather than viewed that community as an administrative mining claim from which to extract whatever ore might be worth keeping?

Perhaps a starting point would be take Carnegie’s advice–the person most worthy of help rarely needs much. Rather than trying to do all the technology transfer for research and creative types–and demanding that those people use the prescribed services on threat of disciplinary action–why not let those who are most capable do their own thing, and focus on those who might actually benefit from some assistance? For them–motivated folk–why not help out but not try to do all? That is, a patent policy that might be based on requests for help, rather than a demand that all inventions be assigned over to the administration.

The GiveWell approach also emphasizes looking for where there is not much existing support. There’s little need for universities to help Venture Capital firms find entrepreneurs, nor for universities to play VC themselves. If something is worth funding, capital markets appear quite able (and are financed for this purpose) to attract what they want to find. So rather than throwing more money at money, Paulson-style, why not look for places to put money to work that would build the health of the creative community. For instance, when I was a graduate student, my dissertation supervisor, Miceal Vaughan, was able to get me a summer stipend to create a transcription of a medieval manuscript. That in turn helped me to develop an in-line text mark up system for manuscripts, which got a bit of play in 1987 in Omni magazine, of all places. For a graduate student on a shoe-string budget, that was the difference between working on a creative project and painting houses. A few thousand dollars in a big, multi-million dollar university research project is a rounding error.

At UC Santa Cruz, we launched an initiative to create micro project budgets for undergraduates doing interesting things–CReME–Collaborative Research Mentoring and Enterprise. We asked the question–if students are asked to do class projects without any budget whatsoever, what would happen if they could request funding up to, say, $500 to do a class project? What would a research project look like if a student could travel, or print some photographs? What would a design project look like if a student could build a prototype? We figured the place that would best benefit from a little help was the undergraduate student motivated to do something beyond the muddle of getting by. A little help from one’s friends, so to speak. We called it “varsity research.”

creme

We figured that if we could identify motivated students interested in using a small budget, we could also connect those students up with people in the community interested in mentoring–retired folk, professionals with an interest in education, companies looking for talent and new ideas. Finally, we figured if students working on projects with capable mentors actually figured out how things could come together, then there would be opportunities to connect the students up with the folks that liked to start companies, or folks like us that were able to help build research and development connections with companies. We had the money, the talent, and the idea. Of course, that was around the time I left UC Santa Cruz, and the moment I was gone, the administration shut down the program before it had a chance to fund anyone.

But you get the idea: put the money where it will have the greatest impact, and greatest impact for the buck. Why build a technology transfer program for the faculty researchers who already have the funding, contacts, and motivation? Why build a technology transfer program as a university subsidy for VCs and big companies? Why fund what’s already funded in a meaningful way, and if it isn’t funded, perhaps that’s a good sign already? What’s the upshot? Push the funding for technology transfer to undergraduates. For the cost of five patents, 100 motivated undergraduates could have $500 each to work with. Nothing for anyone else. But what’s the difference between an unfunded senior project and one that has access to $100? That might make a huge difference in the creative health of a university’s undergraduate program.

The GiveWell folks also have a good idea when it comes to evaluating charities. Programs should be evaluated for impacts and should be transparent. These are properties we don’t find much at all in university technology transfer. We see lots of metrics provided as proxy for effort, but not for impact. How many inventions disclosed? How many patents filed? How many licenses granted? All this is wonderful to show there’s smoke–but patents that aren’t licensed are barriers, and licenses granted to inventions that are not worked are barriers. The effort is fine, but what matters is the impact. For impact, luck is as valuable as skill; for impact, ease is as desirable as fussy complexity; for impact, free means as much as expensive. In short, it plain does not matter how many patents ya got–what matters is what has happened in the world.

Until technology transfer offices publish a list of each invention reported, along with what has happened–claimed or released, helped or not, patented or not, licensed or not, practiced or not, included in product or not–we have little to evaluate to understand if all that effort and expense and complexity is having an impact. The impression one gets, however, is that universities are stockpiling patents, most of which are not getting licensed, and those that are licensed are not getting used. If technology transfer programs were charities, I bet GiveWell would not recommend anyone send a check their way. Without a clear evaluation of outcomes, without transparency, what technology transfer programs produce by way of reports and press releases is marketing spin.

Imagine a charity that sees its primary mission to raise money for itself. Well, you know, for a noble cause. Imagine that this charity wants to be viewed as important, so it associates itself with the most visible celebrities, companies, and governments. It can’t make tiny donations–nothing short of massive donations will do. All press is managed to tell a clear story about the charity’s intentions, how it struggles to deal with the world’s pressing problems. Nothing to fuss about. What’s the problem? The marketing effort becomes more important than the outputs. Projects that could have big impacts are overlooked in favor of projects that will make a big marketing splash.

It’s an easy move to replace “charity” with “technology transfer program.” Assuming you want to fund university-hosted innovation, what do you want to know? Where will you put your money? Under federal funding regulations, with regard to intangible assets acquired or improved with federal funding, universities are to act as “trustees” on behalf of the beneficiaries of the projects they host. Perhaps it’s reporting transparency under 2 CFR 200.316 that we most need, even if the Bayh-Dole Act made it a federal secret how effective (or not) university technology transfer programs are. For that, perhaps we need an organization like GiveWell for university technology transfer. How about Transferwell, an organization dedicated to the independent evaluation of university technology transfer programs?

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